Our first morning in Tokyo we hit the ground running. We had gone to bed early and therefore were up at the crack of dawn. I was keen to get going, and so, around 7 am, we headed out of the hotel in search of some breakfast. Although Japan is the mecca of all things delicious, breakfast didn't seem to be something on offers everywhere you looked. 7/11, we would later learn, has an incredible selection of traditional Japanese breakfast options. But, seeing as we hadn't quite gotten our feet wet with trying out new, foreign foods, we opted for a green tea from a vending machine and a trip to the local McDonalds. We had hoped that there might have been some local McDonalds specialities, and while there were, none of them were available for breakfast. So we scarfed down some McMuffin sandwiches and headed back out on the road.
We had originally thought to take the subway over to Ueno park but seeing as the sun was shining and we weren't in too much of a rush, we opted to walk all the way down to the park. It was still fairly early in the morning, and people were only starting to flood the streets. Shops were still mostly closed, and even the towering department stores were empty and silent.
Early in the morning is always one of my favourite time of day when travelling. There is something so unique about the city when it sleeps and the sun has begun to rise. You can hear your footsteps on the road, the windchimes ringing far off in the distance. The clack of window shutters opening, and the pitter patter of children running off to school. As we moved from the main street to little alleyways, we felt like the city was all our own. We marvelled at the architecture. Tokyo is an "Alice in Wonderland" like world, the new and the old fitted together like perfect puzzle pieces to make the most of the small spaces they occupy.
After a long walk, we arrived at Ueno Park. Although it hadn't started to rain, the grey clouds had begun to dull the blue sky. As we passed through the main gates, we saw a sea of green lotus leaves, absolutely glowing against that grey sky. We had entered the park via the Shinobazu Pond. The pond is situated in the south part of Ueno Park and divided into three different areas. The Lotus Pond, the Boat Pond and the Cormorant Pond. There were several boardwalks across the Lotus pond which seemed to disappear into the green masses as they trailed off. I hadn't done much research on this area and was shocked at how massive this park was. Every little thing we saw along the way was a surprise, and throughout our tour, we would often pull up the Wikipedia page of the park, to read up about the area we were standing in, trying to learn all about the marvels around us while exploring for ourselves.
At the end of the boardwalk, across the pond, stood a moderately tall temple with a bright teal roof and octagonal shell painted brilliant red. This is a Benten-dō. A Benten-dō is an octagonal temple dedicated to Benten, the goddess of good fortune, wealth, music and knowledge.
Temples are the places of worship for Japanese Buddhists and often store and display sacred Buddhist objects. The roofs of these temples are almost always the most impressive part of the building. The intricate patterns of tiles create a rich texture, and intricate sculptures line the eaves, a contrast to the simple wooden structure below.
During the cherry blossom season, when many people make the pilgrimage to Tokyo to witness this natural phenomenon, festival food stalls crowd the pathways around the temple. Off-season, there are only a few, run down stalls on site, selling traditional Japanese street food to locals and tourists alike.
Although there weren't any cherry blossoms on display, there were various bright purple flowers in bloom, dotting the green trees surrounding us. The entire park houses over 8,000 trees and is an arborist's dream.
In front of the temple, several people were praying and lighting brightly coloured incense in front of the temple doors. Incense has been used in Buddism since the 6th century in Japan and is often used as a means of purifying yourself before entering the temple for meditation. The smell permeated this entire area of the park and did leave you with a sense of overwhelming calm.
Outside the temple, there was a small shrine. Beside the shrine, we saw a huge collection wooden plaques. All with different pictures painted on one side and the over, covered in writing, written in Japanese, English and many other languages I couldn't read. These are called Ema. These Ema are left for the gods to receive. Often ema will bear pictures which may reflect the wish or the god they are trying to reach out to. The word 'ema' means "picture horse". This is because long ago people would donate their horses to shrines to win favour with the gods. As time went on, this tradition was transferred to wooden plaques with horses painted on them. These days, you donate money to the shrine to receive your chosen ema. People will often use their ema wish for luck on an exam or for a happy marriage or even just to pray for a child. Depending on your type of wish, you can search out a shrine or temple which specialises in your kind of wish.
Shrines also offer O-mikujis. O-mikujis means " the sacred lot" and are random fortunes written on pieces of paper housed in beautiful wooden drawers near the shrine. There are various ways of receiving these fortunes, but often they received by shaking a metal container with different sticks inside until one stick comes out a small hole at the top. You can then match the Kanji characters carved on the stick to the wooden drawers along the wall where your corresponding fortune will be found. Your fortune will always be characterised by a type of blessing. These blessings range from; great blessings, small blessings, half blessings, ending blessings and even, god forbid, curses. In additional to blessings, your fortune will also contain a reference to an aspect of your life, ranging from topics such as; travel, lost articles, romantic relationships, disputes and business dealings. If the prediction is bad, you fold up the paper into a thin strip and attach it to wires outside the shine. This is so that the "bad luck" will attach itself to the wire, and not you. As such, you see masses of bad fortunes tied all over Shinto shrines throughout Japan.
Outside the Benten-dō we found a small koi pond, full to the brim with hungry koi. They seemed to form a carpet of fish scales as people threw bread into the water. In Japanese culture, koi fish are vital and incredibly symbolic. The koi are symbols of luck, prosperity, and good fortune, the perfect feature to have outside the temple to complete your fill of good luck.
Around the back of the Benten-dō is the Boat Pond. This body of water is home to the brightly coloured duck boats and other small paddle boats available for rent in the warmer seasons. It was too early in the day when we arrived, and the rental place was still closed, but it would have been a lovely way to spend a few hours, paddling around in the pond.
As we go through the rest of the park, it's important to take a moment to understand the difference between shrines and temples. We had no idea going into the park what the difference was and learned as much as we could as we went.
Shrines vs. Temples
Shrines are built for Shintoism, and here you worships different gods and goddess. Shrines will almost always be preceded with a ‘torii’ gate. There will also be water you use to cleanse yourself before entering. Shrines are often guarded by an animal statue so see if you can spot them. This is also the place for prayers of the living and the location for wedding ceremonies.
Temples, on the other hand, are built for Buddism and the location for worshipping the great Buddha. To cleanse yourself before entering a temple, there will be incense at the front as the smoke has healing powers. Unlike Shrine, temples are the place to pray for your afterlife and the location for funerals. It is where you go to commune with your ancestors. Temples and shrines are often placed right next to each other so often it's hard to tell them apart but with these little tips, you'll find clues to help you along the way as we did.
Kiyomizu Kannon Temple
After walking around the Bentendo, we continued on our way. We climbed the steep steps up to the Kiyomizu Kannon Temple. From the top of the stairs, you had the most fantastic view of the Bentendo below and the beautiful trees surrounding it. The first Kiyomizu Kannondo temple was built in 1631. Although fire and weather have destroyed the original temple, the one standing atop the hill now is a perfect replica of the same one people have worshipped at for ages past. Standing in the courtyard and on the deck, you feel as though time has stopped. Nothing surrounds you but trees and the outside world, full of technology, stress and troubles, seems so far away.
The Kiyomizu Kannondo temple is home to a relic of Kosodate Kannon, the goddess of conception, and is particularly popular among women hoping to have children. You see many ladies come up these steps with their husbands, cheerfully smiling, hoping the goddess will bless them with their heart's desire. Other women approach the temple with a more sullen look on their face, as the goddess also is a protectress of children and many people come to pray for the return of the health of their sick child. Along the walls of the temple, you can see weather worn dolls which people leave as symbols of their children or the ones they wish to have. Every year on September 25th, there is a service held for the dolls, and they are all burnt in an annual bonfire, to give a new start for the prayers of the year to come.
At this temple, we tried our hand at receiving a different kind of fortune. You put a coin into a machine operate by a dragon who would fetch your paper fortune for you with his mouth and spit it out in the receiving slot blow. We received the "great fortune" blessing! Lucky us :)
We walked back down to the stairs and strolled along the main pathway in the park towards a mass of Torii gates. A torii gate is commonly found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the mortal realm to the sacred realm.
The brilliant vermillion colour you often see these gates painted with is used as the colour acts to block out magical powers and evil spirits. As we sauntered down the rows of bright vermillion gates, we saw various, curious stone foxes with red scarves on either side of the shrine. These are called 'Kitsune' or fox spirit. These Kitsune are believed to possess superior intelligence, long life, and magical powers and are also there to protect the shrines. Foxes in North America are often thought of as devious scoundrels, but in Japan, they are revered with the highest regard.
We hopped down the steps from the torii gates into the upper shrine of Tōshō-gū. These shrines were overgrown with leaves and vines. The trees seemed to blend into the wooden structure and made it seem all the more at one with its surroundings.
Next to the lower shrine, we saw an old woman inside a small booth both selling and hand painting the ema. Beside her were wooden rods which housed all of the completed wishes. They were piled on top of each other. Each one tied with a different brightly coloured piece of string and decorated with their personal message.
Along the main road that winds throughout the park were rows upon rows of cherry blossom trees. It was the fall, and the trees had long since lost their petals, but even just seeing all these bare trees you could imagine what it would all look like when they were in full bloom. There are over 1000 trees in the park, and in April they attract 'hanami parties' where locals come to celebrate and enjoy the incredible views.
Even the manhole coverings in the park seemed to celebrate the cherry blossoms.
One of the most interesting edifices in the park is the temple dedicated to the Ueno Daibutsu. The Ueno Daibutsu was a giant bronze Buddha statue that stood from 1631 - 1923. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. The remains were, if you can believe it, melted down to make bullets in WWII and today all that remains is the great Buddha's face. People come from all over to see it. Outside the temple, the ema are all painted with the Ueno Daibutsu face, making for an orderly set of prayers, hung very neatly compared to the mass of wishes we saw in the shrine previous.
Along the path, we also passed by the statue of Prince Komatsu no Miya Akihito. Throughout the park, there are several statues of Imperial military leaders atop their horses. The figures, coloured teal as the copper ages, seemed to blend into the forest around them, making them harder to spot but see if you can find them all! They stand tall and proud, inviting guests into the land they helped retain.
We barely grazed the surface of the park, but after a little over an hour of wandering, we decided it was time for a rest. We found, in the centre of the park, a Starbucks with an enormous outdoor patio and thought despite not being very original; it was the perfect spot to take a bit of a rest. Starbucks didn't disappoint when it came to local specialities, and we ordered whatever the monthly specials were along with a bright pink doughnut for good measure.
We sat outside, and people watched for the better part of an hour. There was a small art fair going on, and we watched as the local artists set up their booths and families pushing prams of children came to marvel at the different crafts on offer.
Right behind where the art market was, is the National Art Gallery, fitting right? Ueno Park is famous for the many museums found on its grounds. There are the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Science Museum.
The Ueno Zoo is located in the northernmost of the park. It is the oldest zoo in Japan, and despite its age, the design of the zoo is rather extraordinary. The habitats are designed to look like the animals natural habitat and blend in with the background of the rest of the zoo. This allows you to get up close to the animals.